Genealogy

In the book of Genesis
There are lists of begats,
But no poetry until
Eve is knit from Adam’s rib.

In ancient Egypt, Ra whispered
The secret names of our ancestors,-
Divine afflatus made flesh by
Incantation, sweat, and tears.

Or perhaps it was Prometheus
Who fashioned our forebears out of clay,
And the sacred breath of Athena that
Is preserved in our lungs to this day.

Some say in a kingdom oceans away
The crowing of a white rooster led a king
To the baby in a golden box perched high in a tree –
Whose adoption marks the origin of my lineage.

Doesn’t everyone’s story begin with a miracle?
With efforts of will or imagination?
In living we participate in the act of creation,
And our roots spread wherever we plant them.

 

Crocus

Today the sun shone for the first time in days. Most of the snow has now melted and my beloved crocuses are pirouetting all over my yard. Oh joy! Thanks to Daylight Savings, there was just enough light when I got home from work today to take some photos.

The first thing I planted in the yard of our very first house was a variety of purple crocuses. For seven springs I loved watching them come up through the grass. I think I’m so fond of them, because of the way they intrepidly shoot up right through the snow to announce that spring is just around the corner. When we moved to our current house, I couldn’t bear to have a spring without them and so I planted them by the handful again, all over our new front yard. I know I’ll do the same when we move to our next house.

It takes a certain amount of faith to shove crocus corms into the earth in the autumn. There’s something quite miraculous about the fact that within these hard, brown kernels are hiding gorgeous silky flowers that bide their time all winter long, just waiting for spring to come sashaying up out of the mud.

In her poem The Crocus (1858), Harriet Beecher Stowe compares the miracle of the crocus with the miracle of the Resurrection:

Beneath the sunny autumn sky,
With gold leaves dropping 
We sought, my little friend and I,
The consecrated ground,

Where, calm beneath the holy cross,
O’ershadowed by sweet skies,
Sleeps tranquilly that youthful form,
Those blue unclouded eyes.

Around the soft, green swelling mound
We scooped the earth away,
And buried deep the crocus-bulbs
Against a coming day.
“These roots are dry, and brown, and sere;
Why plant them here?” he said,
“To leave them, all the winter long,
So desolate and dead.”

“Dear child, within each sere dead form
There sleeps a living flower,
And angel-like it shall arise
In spring’s returning hour.”
Ah, deeper down cold, dark, and chill
We buried our heart’s flower,
But angel-like shall he arise
In spring’s immortal hour.

In blue and yellow from its grave
Springs up the crocus fair,
And God shall raise those bright blue eyes,
Those sunny waves of hair.
Not for a fading summer’s morn,
Not for a fleeting hour,
But for an endless age of bliss,
Shall rise our heart’s dear flower.

In The Year’s Awakening Thomas Hardy ponders the mystery of nature’s unerring ability to detect the shifting of seasons. The “vespering” bird and the crocus are the canny heralds of spring:

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s appareling;
O vespering bird, how do you know, 
How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moment’s length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
O crocus root, how do you know,
How do you know?

1910

Alfred Kreymborg describes the wonder of the changing of the seasons when “the first small crocus” banishes winter to the grave:

Crocus 

When trees have lost remembrance of the leaves
that spring bequeaths to summer, autumn weaves
and loosens mournfully – this dirge, to whom
does it belong – who treads the hidden loom?

When peaks are overwhelmed with snow and ice,
and clouds with crepe bedeck and shroud the skies – 
nor any sun or moon or star, it seems,
can wedge a path of light through such black dreams – 

All motion cold, and dead all traces thereof:
What sudden shock below, or spark above,
starts torrents raging down till rivers surge – 
that aid the first small crocus to emerge?

The earth will turn and spin and fairly soar,
that couldn’t move a tortoise-foot before – 
and planets permeate the atmosphere
till misery depart and mystery clear! –

And yet, so insignificant a hearse? –
who gave it the endurance so to brave
such elements – shove winter down a grave? –
and then lead on again the universe?

1933

 Happy Weekend!

Looking back

First posted around this time last year…Remember Lot’s wife, who turns into a pillar of salt as God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone in Genesis, Ch. 19? As is typical of so many Old Testament stories, there are some hair-raising and incomprehensible details leading up to the fiery dénouement. Lot invites strangers into his home, not realizing they are angels in disguise. When  townspeople surround his house and demand that he send the strangers out so that they can have sex with them, Lot tries to protect his guests and appease the mob by offering up his own virgin daughters to them instead. Having thus proven his virtue with this highly questionable act, he is rewarded when the strangers reveal themselves to be angels and warn him to save his family and himself by fleeing Sodom before God engulfs the city in flames. As the family runs, Lot’s wife can’t resist turning her head for a moment to look back at her home. For this very human and understandable action, she is punished by being turned into a pillar of salt. There are many “Lot’s Wife” poems including Anna Akhmatova’s, Wislawa Szymborska’s and Gary Whitehead’s. Here’s my attempt:

Looking Back

Lot, that drunken old fool, was always bringing home strangers to feed
“You never know when you might be entertaining angels in need,”
He would simper, while I grumbled and slammed about the kitchen,
Conjuring up a feast out of thin air like some two-bit magician.
On that last day he’d been loafing around Sodom’s gates where he met
A couple of shady drifters…both of them reeking of grime and sweat
He brought them back to our house to spend the night, but seeing my hostile glare
The strangers shuffled their feet and said they’d go sleep out in the square
Lot pushed the door open wide, and loudly insisted they come inside.
I threw my hands up in despair and made our little girls go and hide.
You should have seen the production he made of washing their dirty feet
He plied them with wine and gave them all our unleavened bread to eat
By midnight the men passed out and the house was quiet
Suddenly, we were awakened by the clamor of a riot.
Outside, a menacing mob was shouting, “Send the men out to us!”
And then: Lot’s Grand Finale – a betrayal so despicable, so odious…
“We couldn’t allow our house guests to be molested…
I’ll send our daughters out to them instead,” he suggested
I grabbed a frying pan and tried to bash it over the old man’s head.
I wanted nothing more than to see that sanctimonious jackass dead.
But as I swung, one of the strangers grabbed my wrist
They dragged us out of the house and one of them hissed:
“Whatever you do, don’t look back, not even for a second!”
Sodom was ablaze. We ran as searing flames threatened.
And now? Fire and brimstone are raining down,
Destroying everything in that lousy, godforsaken town
But, oh Lord, it was there I raised my family and buried my kin
It was there where every moment of my life until now had been.
And where the hell are we running to anyway?
Could I even bear to be with Lot for one more day?
So yes, for this moment, I’ll have only myself to blame –
I turn my head back for a glimpse, and see nothing but flame
I stand rooted, transfixed – I’m forced to halt
Oh God! I’m turning into a pillar of salt!
My last words fade as my lip hardens and tingles,
So this is what comes of entertaining angels…

ECG

IMG_3485

ECG

The day is only halfway done, and
The man is hungry and tired and worried.
It took two hours to drive through the snow to get to work today
The beltway – a junkyard littered with cars and ablaze with screaming sirens.
He moves the wand against the child’s skin, trying to capture her heartbeat on the screen.
In this dark, windowless room, there’s no telling if it’s still snowing out there.
God, he thinks, it’s going to take forever to get back home tonight
To an empty apartment that’s too cold and
Yesterday’s congealed takeout, and

Halfway through this appointment,
The little girl is thirsty and tired and bored
The man squeezes warm gel onto her chest and tells her
She might feel some pressure, and then utters not a single word more.
Staring at the screen, he glides and presses the wand around the electrodes on her skin.
The black and white images look like dancing ghosts, she thinks
Then wonders what she’ll order at the café downstairs
Where her mother has promised to buy her a drink
Before the next appointment.

In a few hours they can head back home
For now – the room is dark and quiet, but for the tapping of keys
The man freezes images of a beating heart that exists somehow on the screen
And also inside this child with solemn eyes and black curls falling on her perfect cheek
The mother gazes back and forth from the flickering ghosts on the screen to the child before her
The veil has been torn and just for a moment she peers into the Holy of Holies
And is witness to the sacred mystery that animates each blink, each breath
She should have fallen on her knees in wonder, she thinks to herself
All through the night, on the long journey home.

I spent the first two days of this week taking my daughter from one medical appointment to another for her routine biannual checkups. (She is absolutely fine)! I’ve always been amazed by equipment such as x-rays and ultrasounds that can reveal hidden mysteries inside the human body. My daughter had an ECG for the first time, and it struck me as miraculous to be able to see inside of her beating heart. It seemed absurd that something so ineffably wondrous could be happening in a banal hospital room, and that this miracle could be translated into a series of measurable sine waves.

For you

It looks as if Hannah Graham’s earthly remains have been found. All of us collectively holding our breath for these 35 long days are finally exhaling a long and anguished sigh. The horrifying discovery took place against the backdrop of an exquisitely beautiful fall weekend here in Charlottesville. This is my attempt at making sense of the resulting cognitive dissonance.

For you – a stranger who became our own sister, our daughter,
We sent up our prayers and poured out our hearts like water.
For you the sun shone again after days of relentless rains
And leaves glowed like jewels with holy fire in their veins.
For you a million stars exploded in a firmament
Ablaze to bear witness to our mournful lament
And now may perfect peace enfold you like a mother’s embrace,
May you walk in light eternal, extravagant love, and amazing grace.

Maymont

After visiting Agecroft Hall, my friend and I drove on to Maymont. Like Agecroft Hall, Maymont is an estate that has been turned into an historic house museum. There are wildlife exhibits, a children’s farm, and beautiful formal gardens.

The entrance to the Italian Gardens is marked by a stone arch with the inscription “Via Florum.”

The daffodil display garden:

The entrance to the Japanese Garden:

I love photographing people, but I generally try to avoid having them in photos of landscapes. On this day, however, the gardens were so bustling that it was impossible to avoid including them in the photos. Apart from the usual garden visitors, there were high schoolers posing in their prom outfits and a gathering of “LARPers,” (Live-action role-players) dressed in fanciful costumes and wigs. (Believe me, I was dying to take their photos, but I managed to restrain myself with great difficulty…). Looking back at the photos that include people I captured unintentionally, I love the effect. I think the people, dressed in clothing as colorful as the flowers themselves, add rather than detract from the scene.

Here are two garden poems that capture the idea of people as an integral part of a gardenscape:

Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” begins with this stanza:

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jeweled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

And here are the beginning and final stanzas of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Design in Living Colors.” Perhaps she had Amy Lowell’s poem in mind when she wrote this?

Embroidered in a tapestry of green
Among the textures of a threaded garden,
The gesturing lady and her paladin
Walk in a path where shade and sunlight harden
Upon the formal attitudes of trees
By no wind bent, and birds without a tune,
Against the background of a figured frieze
In an eternal summer afternoon.

And the final stanza:

The fleeing hare, the wings that brush the tree,
All images once separate and alone,
Become the creatures of a tapestry
Miraculously stirred and made our own.
We are the denizens of a living wood
Where insight blooms anew on every bough,
And every flower emerges understood
Out of a pattern unperceived till now.

Looking Back Again

I’m constantly looking back over my shoulder, both literally and figuratively. Did I remember to turn off the oven? Should I have said what I said, done what I did? Is my dad still standing there in the freezing cold at the end of the sidewalk waving to me as I drive away? Nowhere is this tendency to look back more pronounced than when I write. I revisit and revise things I’ve written over and over again, sometimes even decades after I first wrote them.

For this reason, trying to keep up a blog has been a sometimes painful form of self-discipline. Because the time I have to write is so limited, it’s only a self-imposed posting schedule that keeps me going. But forcing myself to write and actually post to a deadline has been a bit like what I would imagine it would feel like to have to run naked around my neighborhood. (If you happen to have read “Naked” you’ll know how unthinkably horrific that would be for me, not to mention for my neighbors as well)! I could so easily be paralyzed (turn into a pillar of salt?) by succumbing to my urge to endlessly look back, fix, tweak, and edit. This is perhaps why the literary theme of looking back as an act fraught with peril resonates with me.

A couple weeks ago I explored this theme in “Looking back,” a poem written from the point of view of Lot’s wife, who turns to watch Sodom burning. This week’s “Looking back” poem is about Orpheus and Eurydice. On their wedding day, Eurydice is killed by the bite of a venomous serpent and is taken into the Underworld. So powerful is Orpheus’ music that he is able to sing his way into the Underworld and is even able to persuade Hades to allow Eurydice to return to Earth. In most versions of the myth, in his frantic joy at finally reaching Earth with his beloved, Orpheus turns too soon before Eurydice has been able to cross the threshold of the Underworld. For this one glance, Eurydice is lost to him forever. Gluck’s operatic version of the story is even more cruel. Eurydice cannot understand why Orpheus won’t turn to look at her. She reproaches him for no longer loving her and refuses to continue on with him. Unable to bear her grief, Orpheus turns to reassure her of his love and she is lost to him again.

Here’s how Julian Barnes makes sense of Orpheus’ action in his book Levels of Life:

Of course Orfeo would turn to look at the pleading Euridice – how could he not? Because, while “no one in his senses” would do so, he is quite out of his senses with love and grief and hope. You lose the world for a glance? Of course you do. That is what the world is for: to lose under the right circumstances.
Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orphée ramenant Eurydice des enfers, 1861

Looking back

When Orpheus played his golden lyre
The wild beasts lumbered and swayed
Rocks and trees drew nearer to listen
And the sirens’ ruinous song was outplayed

How could you not love a boy like that? Eurydice thought
As she danced with the Naiads on her wedding day
With flowers in her hair and a heart full of love
She trod barefoot where a venomous serpent lay

Orpheus rushed after her into the Underworld
Singing a lament so bitter and gorgeous
That Hades himself broke down and wept
And three-headed Cerberus howled in chorus

I’d like to think Persephone played a part
In pleading for the poor bride’s release
She who had also been torn from the Earth now asked
That Eurydice be allowed to go in peace

Leave now, Hades commanded, but don’t turn around
Until you’ve both crossed the threshold and see sunlight
Amazed at their good fortune they set off at once,
Orpheus in front, Eurydice behind and safely out of sight

Then what joy, what relief to finally step out into the sun
And to know this terrible nightmare is over!
Orpheus turns joyfully with hand outstretched –
Too soon! For this glance, Eurydice is lost forever.

I’m quite sure I’ll be looking back and changing this poem, but there it is for now.